Creating the Extraordinary Student Experience

National Roots & Branches Month - Know your Family Medical Tree

(The following was extracted from:

Your family medical history - also called a medical family tree or pedigree - is a record of illnesses and medical conditions affecting your family members. Similar to a family tree, a family medical history shows the relationships among members of your family, but it also includes relevant health information for each person.

How is a family medical history used?

You inherit half of your genetic profile from each parent. Along with the genetic information that determined your appearance, you inherited genes that may cause or increase your risk of certain medical conditions. A family medical history can help your doctor interpret the history of disease in your family and identify patterns that may be relevant to your own health. Your doctor may use your family medical history to:

  • Assess your risk of certain diseases
  • Recommend treatments or changes in diet or lifestyle habits to reduce the risk of disease
  • Determine which diagnostic tests to order
  • Determine the type and frequency of screening tests
  • Determine whether you or family members should get a specific genetic test
  • Identify a condition that might not otherwise be considered
  • Identify other family members who are at risk of developing a certain disease
  • Assess your risk of passing conditions on to your children

A family medical history can't predict your future health - it only provides information about risk. Other factors, such as your diet, weight, exercise routine and exposure to environmental factors, also will raise or lower your risk of developing certain diseases.

What's the best way to gather family medical information?

Your family may want to work together on developing your family medical history. Holidays and reunions can provide a good opportunity for you and your relatives to gather information. Not everyone, however, may be comfortable disclosing personal medical information. A number of factors may contribute to a person's reluctance to discuss medical issues, including guilt, shame and painful memories. Consider the following strategies to address these issues with your relatives:

  • Share your purpose. Explain that you're creating a record to help you determine whether you and your relatives have a family history of certain diseases or health conditions. Offer to make the medical history available to other family members so that they can share the information with their doctors.
  • Provide several ways to answer questions. Some people may be more willing to share health information in a face-to-face conversation. Others may prefer answering your questions by phone, mail or email.
  • Word questions carefully. Keep your questions short and to the point.
  • Be a good listener. As your relatives talk about their health problems, listen without judgment or comment.
  • Respect privacy. As you collect information about your relatives, respect their right to confidentiality. Some people may not want to share any health information with you. Or they may not want this information revealed to anyone other than you and your doctor.

What information should be included in a family medical history?

If possible, your family medical history should include at least three generations. Compile information about your grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. For each person, try to gather the following information:

  • Sex
  • Date of birth
  • Ethnicity
  • Diseases or other medical conditions
  • Age when disease was diagnosed
  • Diet, exercise habits, smoking habits or history of weight problems
  • For deceased relatives, age at the time of death and cause of death

Ask about the occurrence of the following diseases and medical conditions often associated with genetic risk:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Dementia
  • Asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Mental illness
  • High blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Stroke
  • Kidney disease
  • Alcoholism or other substance abuse
  • Vision or hearing loss
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental retardation
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects or infertility

The Surgeon General provides an online tool for you to use in creating your family medical tree. (  The information you enter is stored on your own computer and cannot be accessed by anyone else, unless you choose to share it.